The British Gold Star

I love the British expression "well done". I am always surprised by the enthusiasm of the uttered phrase, and for a long time it puzzled me. Sometimes it is used as the understatement of the year. For example, I am sure if I were to win the Nobel Peace Prize, a tempered "well done" would be the most common reaction. In a way, in the U.K., this makes total sense – because the British are notoriously self-deprecating. Achievement and success is often seen as embarrassing, it's something to be played down at all costs.

But the flip side of this is that the expression "well done" is often reserved for the most mundane tasks. For example, the Hub and I planned to go to the movies on a Sunday evening. Because you can now save 10% on the ticket prices at our local cinema by booking online, I pre-booked them. When I told the Hub, he said "well done" in a very enthusiastic manner (for him), as if doing such a thing required a lot of skill, effort and time. "That's O.K.," I said and walked out of the house to go off to run some errand or another.

The exchange stuck with me though, and I found myself thinking about when people here say it to me. I wracked my brain, remembering that my mother-in-law always says it when the Hub and I come down for a visit. In a way, getting to their home in the suburbs of London is actually easier than our commute to work. It consists of taking a short bus ride to the train station and then a 30 minute direct train ride. I often buy a coffee at the station and maybe even a glossy magazine if I feel like a treat. It's not a particularly difficult or trying thing to do, but the Hub's lovely mum always greets us with a big "well done", as if this trip began in the Outer Hebrides (those remote islands off the West Coast of Scotland).

I used to find this puzzling, but now I think I get it. In an understated culture, "well done" is short hand for "thanks for making this small but really appreciated effort". It's my mother-in-law's way of saying thanks for taking the time to come and see us. It's a subtle way to express gratitude for something that may seem small, but actually is really big.

And the best part about these well dones? In a world where people often fall into the trap that in order to be happy, accepted and loved that they have to accomplish certain and very specific things, it might not actually not true. You don't have to win a Nobel prize – you just have to order the cinema tickets online. Well done, lovely Brits, well done you*.

*A derivation of "well done" often heard here is "well done you". I think this might be Northern? My physio says it and she's Northern, so there's my evidence. (Leave a comment if you actually know!)

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